Updated on Thursday at 1:21 p.m. CT
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has signed major state legislation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s action Wednesday came just a few hours after the state Senate approved a measure the Assembly passed on Tuesday.
The bill comes a few weeks after Congress authorized a federal package that will bring $2 billion to Wisconsin. The state bill makes more than 50 changes related to Wisconsin health care and the economy. But just as in the Assembly on Tuesday, there was controversy in the Senate.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling tried to get the Republican majority to approve an amendment that would have OK'd more financial help and protective gear for frontline workers in medicine and other jobs.
“The amendment before us, our first, provides immediate relief to our hospitals and our frontline emergency responders so they can continue to serve and protect our communities,” Shilling said.
Republicans rejected the amendment.
Next, Milwaukee state Sen. Chris Larson spoke in favor of allowing absentee ballots to go to all registered voters in Wisconsin for the August and November elections. The Democrat referred to photos during in-person voting on April 7 of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wearing protective gear while serving as a poll worker and declaring it was safe to vote.
“We saw the national embarrassment that was. Hopefully, people have seen the echoes of that,” Larson said.
But GOP senators blocked the voting language, too. Republicans also shot down a move to try to expand Evers' emergency powers if there’s another pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Dodge County, spoke in favor of the main bill that passed the Assembly. He offered highlights, including that there will be a suspension of the state’s one-week wait for unemployment benefits.
"It provides relief to those who unexpectedly find themselves out of work. It provides emergency funds to the Joint Finance Committee of $75 million, so we can react to unforeseen challenges that may not be covered by the federal assistance. It captures hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars that will go toward health care for our state’s most vulnerable population," Fitzgerald said.
Though Democrats say they worry Republicans won’t meet in session again this year, Fitzgerald seemed to leave the door open to more action.
"This bill is imperfect and it might be the first bill of a number that we are going to have to pass in the Legislature," he said.
Fitzgerald and most of the other senators weren't in a meeting room at the Capitol. Two Milwaukee Democrats who took part by computer, Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter, said Republicans blocked them from speaking.
Evers said the bill is a step in the right direction but adds there’s much more work to be done. On Thursday, Evers extended his social distancing orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to May 26. They were originally scheduled to end on April 24.
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